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Antonio Gramsci and the Bolshevization of the PCI

Author(s): Thomas R Bates

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 11, No. 2/3, Special Issue: Conflict and
Compromise: Socialists and Socialism in the Twentieth Century (Jul., 1976), pp. 115-131
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Contemporary History.
Journal of Contemporary History, 11 (1976), 115-131

Antonio Gramsciand the

Bolshevization of the PCI

Thomas R Bates

A totalitarian politics tends: 1. ensure that the members of a

certain party find in this one party all the satisfaction they
formerly found in a multiplicity of organizations...;
2. destroy all other organizations or incorporate them in a
system of which the party is the sole governor. This happens
when: 1. the given party is the vehicle of a new culture, and
we have a progressive phase; 2. the given party wants to
prevent another force, the vehicle of a new culture, from
becoming totalitarian, and we have an objectively regressive
and reactionary phase, even if the reaction (as always
happens) tries to appear itself as the vehicle of a new culture.

A-ntonion Gramsci
Note su Machiavelli

Since the publication of John Cammett's work on Antonio Gramsci

in 1967 new information has come to light which drastically alters our
understanding of Gramsci's impact on Italian communism in the 1920s.
Cammett did not explain how Gramsci won power in the PCI, nor is
it clear from his account that Gramsci was the prime mover in the
'Bolshevization' of the communist party. Finally, Cammett failed to
assess the ideological significance of this change both for the party
and for Gramsci's own political thought.1
Paolo Spriano's massive new work, Storia del Partito comunista
italiano, has provided us with revealing data about Gramsci's successful
power struggle with Amadeo Bordiga.2 But neither Spriano nor

116 Journal of Contemporary History

Cammett were able to consult all Gramsci's unedited writings from this
period, many of which have only recently been identified.3 These
writings, which the Institute Gramsci in Rome kindly made available
to me, reveal a dramatic metamorphosis in Gramsci's political mind
as well as in his political behaviour between 1923 and 1926. They cast
doubt on the official party thesis-espoused also by Cammett-that
there is a 'direct line of descent' from Gramsci's factory council
experience of 1919-20 to his Quaderni del carcero written ten years
later, and that the tradition of Ordine Nuovo (the former mouthpiece
of the factory councils) is the tradition Gramsci implanted in his party
in the 1920s.4
Our evidence suggests, on the contrary, that though Gramsci tried
to keep faith in his earlier ideal of workers' democracy, he was
ultimately obliged to sacrifice this ideal to the more realistic program
of Bolshevization. This makes it easier to understand why, in his prison
notebooks, the libertarian concept of the factory council is supplanted
by the authoritarian concept of monolithic party dictatorship. And
why his youthful belief in a 'Proletarian enlightenment' preparing
the path for a democratic revolution from below is replaced by his
blueprint for an explicitly 'totalitarian' culture organized from above.
Gramsci's personal metamorphosis must be understood in the
context of three historical developments: the failure of the post-war
revolts in Italy and other European countries, the rise of Fascism and
the rise of Stalinism. The thorough Bolshevization of European
communist parties would have been inconceivable were it not for the
isolation and impotence of these parties in their home countries. In
Italy, the disillusioning defeats of the biennio rosso left the masses
apathetic and the socialist elite deeply divided. And though the inter-
vention of Moscow was partly responsible for the disastrous schism in
Italian socialism at the Congress of Livorno in 1921, the consequent
isolation of the 'pure communists' made them all the more dependent
on Moscow for material and spiritual sustenance. And the hard knocks
of Fascism would make it that much easier for them to accept the
harsh lessons of Bolshevization.
No Italian had greater faith in the Russians than Antonio Gramsci,
who believed that Bolshevik principles were of universal validity.
'What is, in fact, the Communist International?' he asked in January
1921. 'It is the international realization of the principles and methods
of the Russian Revolution.'5 But the principles and methods of
Bolshevism were far from being permanently defined in 1921. They
were to undergo a subtle but profound change in the next five years, a
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 117

change linked to the rise of Joseph Stalin. During the same period
Antonio Gramsci rose to power in the communist party of Italy. It was
also during these years that the PCI was 'Bolshevized'; that is, set on
a monolithic footing, its policy and personnel strictly subordinated
to the will of Stalin's 'majority'. Anyone familiar with the history
of the Comintern will immediately realize that such a coincidence could
not have been purely coincidental. The coincidence of changing circum-
stances in Russia and the political metamorphosis of Antonio Gramsci
can be conceived and rationally understood only as Bolshevizing
Gramsci, however, did not immediately come to grips with his
mission, nor was he able to carry it out until he won the leadership
of the party in the latter part of 1924. The period from the Congress
of Livorno to the Fifth Congress of the Communist International was
the period of Gramsci's gradual discovery of his historical task, and of
his power struggle with Amadeo Bordiga.


At Livorno Amadeo Bordiga emerged as leader of the new communist

party. Gramsci was little known outside Turin, and suspicions of
'interventionism' and 'idealism' still shadowed his reputation.6 He was
shy and ill-at-ease with crowds, and his quiet voice was unsuited to
command an assembly of Italians. Bordiga, on the other hand, was a
nationally-known figure. What he lacked in brain power he made up
for with great physical energy and personal magnetism. But Bordiga
possessed one trait which made him unfit to survive as leader of a
section of the Communist International, and that was his stubborn
pride. Bordiga's pride would founder on the rocks of Comintern
discipline, when that discipline demanded sudden reversals in the
guiding policies of his party.
Hostilities between Bordiga and the Comintern commenced in the
summer of 1921, when the Third Congress of the International
announced the new tactic of the united front. Bordiga approved of
united action 'from below' against Fascism, but remained hostile to
the notion of making political deals with other parties. For this he
has been roundly condemned as a 'sectarian' by party historians.
But if Bordiga is to blame, the blame must be shared by the great
majority of party leaders who initially supported him, including all
the former ordinovisti except Angelo Tasca. Tasca, along with Antonio
118 Journal of Contemporary History

Graziadei, was the only consistent advocate of the united front 'from
above' throughout the 1920s, a consistency which resulted in his
expulsion from the party at the end of the decade.7
Gramsci's views in 1921-22 were, at least on the surface,
indistinguishable from those of the bordighisti. He patiently accepted
his subordinate role on the central committee, and, as editor of Ordine
Nuovo (now an official party mouthpiece), he obediently followed
Bordiga's line. At the Rome Congress of the PCI in March 1922, he cast
his vote, like everyone else, in favor of Bordiga's 'Theses', which
repudiated the united front 'from above'. Like the majority, he
continued to devote his best energies to assassinating the character
of social-democrats, while Fascists were carrying out assassinations of
the deadlier sort. The bordighisti and ordinovisti were brought even
closer together by the fact that the 'right opposition' led by Tasca
and Graziadei might get control of the party by virtue of their support
for the Comintern line.8
At the Rome Congress Gramsci was appointed to represent the
PCI in the Executive of the Communist International. At the end of
May 1922, he left Turin for Moscow. His year-and-a-half sojourn in
the Soviet Union would bring about a dramatic change in his political
fortune, as well as in his political views. This did not happen overnight,
however. During the summer of 1922 Gramsci faithfully represented
Bordiga in Moscow. It was not until the Fourth World Congress in
November that a crack appeared in his loyalty. Zinoviev, President
of the International, then demanded that the PCI 'fuse' with the PSI
under G.M. Serrati, who had just expelled the reformists and declared
his allegiance to the Third International. Faced with Bordiga's resolute
opposition of the fusion, Comintern spokesman Matyas Rakosi
cornered Gramsci and bluntly suggested that he replace Bordiga.
Gramsci declined on the grounds that such a change would require
extensive preparation in the party.9 This was a skillful response
because, while it avoided an immediate confrontation, it did not rule
out the possibility that he would accept the offer if these preparations
were carried out.
If we may trust Gramsci's memory as he looked back on these events
over a year later, he had held reservations about Bordiga's politics since
early in 1922. Evidently, he had supported Bordiga's 'Rome Theses'
only for a 'contingent reason of party organization', and if they had not
been presented merely as 'suggestions' to the Comintern, he would
have voted against them.10 The contingency about which he was
worried was the possibility that the 'right opposition' might get control
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 119

of the party. To Togliatti he later admitted quite frankly that he 'put up

with a lot because the situation of the party and the movement was
such that any appearance of schism in the ranks of the majority would
have been disastrous, and would have breathed life into the aimless
and unqualified minority'. He also cited his poor health as a reason
for his reluctance to challenge Bordiga. 1
During the Fourth World Congress Bolshevik leaders skillfully played
off Tasca's 'aimless' minority against Bordiga's majority, a tactic which
provided Gramsci with an opportunity to take the side of the
Comintern. He helped convince the majority that to preserve their
control of the party they would have to submit, at least verbally, to
the Comintern line. He was then appointed, along with Tasca and
Mauro Scoccimarro, to a commission to arrange the fusion with the
PSI. However, while they negotiated with Serrati in Moscow, Pietro
Nenni led a rebellion against the fusion in Italy, and the negotiations
collapsed. The Comintern now insisted that the PCI fuse with Serrati's
tiny faction of terzini, while Bordiga continued to insist that his party
could only admit new members on an individual basis.
In February 1923 Mussolini had Bordiga thrown in jail. Undaunted,
the fiery leader launched a famous 'manifesto' from prison, defending
his conduct of party affairs, denouncing the united front tactic and
demanding an international debate on the Italian question.12 By the
end of 1923 he had convinced all the other majority leaders to sign it.
All, that is, except Antonio Gramsci.
Gramsci was now in Vienna, where the Comintern had sent him to
make better contact with the home front, while remaining free from
the mandate for his arrest which had been issued in Italy. He was now
faced with a critical decision. The Comintern had taken advantage of
Bordiga's imprisonment to eliminate him from the party leadership
in June. Should Gramsci rally to his support, as the others had? Or
should he side with the Comintern against his own party? He was by
now convinced that the Comintern line was correct, and that to break
with the International would be disastrous. It was up to him to bring
his party to heel and weld it into an effective weapon of world
The Comintern's 'act of authority' in June had meanwhile raised
some vital questions about party organization and discipline. Could the
authority of the Comintern be legitimately extended to dismissing the
democratically-elected leaders of national sections? To what extent
should criticism and opposition to the Comintern line be tolerated? In
some notes Gramsci hurriedly jotted down at the time of the coup, we
120 Journal of Contemporary History

can see his emerging vision of the monolithic party. Raising the spectre
of factionalism, he warned against the appearance of differences of
opinion within the party leadership.
From the whole experience of the Russian Revolution it appearsthat the
absenceof unanimityin the great public votes determinesspecialpositionsin
the midst of the great masses. The political oppositionistscoalesce into a
minority. They expand and generalizetheir position, conspire to publish
manifestoes, programs,etc ... and carry on an all-out effort of agitation,
which can become extremelydangerousat a certainmoment.13
He advised that it would be better to raise important questions in
'private discussions' rather than in public where they might have
international repercussions. And these questions, even in private,
should only be raised within the limits of decisions made by previous
congresses.1 4
Such statements reveal that Gramsci had fully accepted the
structural changes in the International inaugurated at its Fourth
Congress in 1922. These changes entailed acknowledgement of
Bolshevik supremacy on all questions, an increased centralization of
authority in the Comintern and unity at both national and international
levels. Moreover, Gramsci's endorsement of political monolithism
coincided with the fusion of party and state in Russia, which was
formally approved by the Twelfth Congress of Russian Communist
Party in April 1923.
In Gramsci's campaign against Bordiga's 'manifesto', we can perceive
his growing commitment to the logic of Bolshevization. But this
commitment was not an easy one for the former prophet of the factory
councils. The distressed conscience of a democrat is evident in his
complaint that Bordiga had discouraged debate within the party by his
dictatorial usurpation of authority and responsibility. 'The error of the
party', he said, 'was to have posed in an exaggerated and abstract
fashion the problem of party organization, which then meant merely to
create an apparatus of functionaries who were completely loyal to the
official line.'15 If Gramsci knew what was right, it would prove more
difficult for him to do what was right once he had changed places with
This twist of fate was already in the cards in 1923. By their
autocratic removal of Bordiga in June, the Comintern placed him in the
role of opposition, not only to the tactics, but also to the organi-
zational procedures of the International. Something similar happened
to Trotsky in Russia, and it was natural that the Bordiga and Trotsky
issues should converge. The minimum demand of an oppositionist was
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 121

to call for free and rational discussion of the issues, and this inevitably
placed them in the role of democrats. Free discussion was precisely
the major demand of Bordiga's 'manifesto'.16 Gramsci, while blaming
Bordiga for suppressing discussion, was nevertheless obliged to reject
his appeal for a national and international debate on the issues. He
threatened expulsion for those who did not come to heel, and he
paraded the spectre of a takeover by the 'right opposition', in which he
now suspected the influence of the petty-bourgeoisie.17
Meanwhile in Russia the Trotskyist opposition had been condemned
as a 'petty-bourgeois deviation from Leninism'. Gramsci's attitude
towards the Trotsky-Stalin conflict provides a revealing sidelight on his
personal metamorphosis. His description of the conflict in a letter of
February 1924 is noteworthy for its neutral tone and healthy
scepticism towards the ideological labels used in the fray. He found the
historical evidence of a 'right-wing' or 'Menshevik' tendency more
convincing in the case of Zinoviev and Kamenev-who formed with
Stalin the ruling triumvirate-than the case of Trotsky. And he
defended Trotsky against charges that he was responsible for the
failure of the German communist putsch of October 1923.18
Other evidence suggests that Gramsci continued to view the Russian
conflict with circumspection. A letter he wrote to Umberto Terracini
in March reveals his mounting concern that the PCI should attain a
level of strength and self-confidence capable of resisting the corrosive
clashes in the Russian Party. He even hinted at the desirability of a
certain amount of political autonomy within the International:

If, by the V Congress,our party is curedof its crisis,if it has a stablenucleus

and a center which enjoys, not for its international connections but for its
own actions, the faith of the Italian masses, we will be able to assume an
independent position and to permit ourselves even the luxury of criticism.
For the present it seems convention to louvoyer [tack] for awhile, so as not
to add to the confusion and to the crisis of faith and prestige which already
exists on a large scale.19

In this brief comment Gramsci put his finger accurately on the

historical reason for the subordination of European parties to Moscow.
He did not foresee how long that reason would remain in force. Thus,
his 'tacking', however convenient it seemed at the moment, led him
ever further off his desired course.
Just what his desired course was, we may surmise from the third
series of Ordine Nuovo, launched by Gramsci from Vienna in March
1924. On the front page of the new journal there was an echo of its
original purpose: 'Ordine Nuovo proposes to arouse in the masses of
122 Journal of Contemporary History

workers and peasants a revolutionary vanguard capable of creating the

state of workers' and peasants' councils .. "20 In a letter to Togliatti,
Gramsci remarked that 'The specific program of the review, in my
opinion, must still be the factory organization'. He hoped to
reconstruct 'an ambience like that of 1920', when their ideas were
immediately tested by reality and never appeared as 'the cold
application of an intellectual scheme'.21
But there was a difference in 1924 between what Gramsci wanted
to do and what he could do. Italian reality was no longer as friendly
to the soviet ideal as it had been in 1920. The labor movement had
practically ground to a halt. In 1923 only 300,000 labor hours were
lost in strikes, or one for every 55 hours lost in 1920. In all Italy only
about 10,000 men and women carried the card of the communist
party, or one for every 20 who had carried the card of the social party
in 1920. No matter how much he longed for the good old days, not
even Antonio Gramsci could turn the clock back, nor could he recover
the confidence in the masses which had inspired his original conception
of the soviet. If, in 1920, he had placed his hopes on the concrete
experience of the councils to prepare the workers for englightened self-
government, by 1924 the 'passivity', the 'torpor' and the 'dull stupor'
of the workers indicated that only the vigorous propaganda of the party
could save them.22
If objective circumstances thwarted Gramsci's soviet ambitions, they
favored his reconstruction of the party. By April 1924 he had
convinced a majority of his comrades not to go along with Bordiga's
'manifesto'. On April 18 his 'center' position won a slim majority on
the central committee. This victory was an important step along the
path to power.23
In May he left Vienna for Italy. In the national elections of April he
had been elected deputy to Parliament in a Venetian district. In early
May he attended a clandestine convention of the party on the shores of
Lake Como. It was at Como that the analogy between Bordiga and
Trotsky was introduced into Italy, and it was Gramsci who introduced
it. He blamed both men for their 'passive opposition', which had
created a 'sense of uneasiness in the entire party'. In Trotsky's case he
now drew the ominous conclusion that

... an opposition by conspicuous personalities of the workers' movement-

even maintained within the limits of formal discipline-can not only impede
the development of the revolutionary situation, but can even endanger the
conquests of the revolution.24
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 123

Only three months after his cautious defense of Trotsky, Gramsci was
advising him to shut up.
Gramsci's observation of a 'sense of uneasiness' in the party had a
very real basis in fact. The fact was that Bordiga was far from defeated.
The new Executive created by the Comintern had as yet no real
authority in Italy. Though Gramsci controlled the central committee,
Bordiga still enjoyed the loyalty of the rank and file. The delegates at
Como gave Bordiga ten votes for every one of Gramsci's. Gramsci's
'majority' won even fewer votes than Tasca's 'minority'.25
Despite the overwhelming mandate for Bordiga at Como, the 'center'
continued as the official leadership by virtue of its slim majority in
the central committee. The will of the leaders, however, was of little
account in the absence of an army. In the national elections of April
the Communists had won only 19 seats, compared to 375 won by the
Fascist coalition. The Communists called these results a 'success' in
light of the brutal campaign of intimidation carried on by the
Fascists.26 But their real failure was objectively revealed at the Fifth
World Congress in June 1924.
At the Fifth World Congress the Comintern launched its campaign
for the complete Bolshevization of member parties. Though this process
had been evident from the very beginning of the International, never
before had it been so explicitly demanded that members conform
ideologically and organizationally to the ruling party of Russia. Never
before had the Bolsheviks so clearly indicated their will to dominate
and control every facet of party policy and personnel in western
Amadeo Bordiga raised one of the few voices of opposition at the
Fifth Congress. The Bolsheviks were appalled by his suggestion that
they should be subordinate to the Comintern like the rest of the
parties, and that decisive power in the International should go to the
advanced capitalist countries.27 They were also embarrassed by the
fact that their own tactical line was now almost indistinguishable from
Bordiga's. Though Stalin personally admired Bordiga, the latter's
proud defiance and distrust of Bolshevik authority obliged the
Comintern to remove the remnants of his following from the central
committee, leaving the 'center' in a position of clear superiority. In
August the central committee so carefully pruned by the Comintern
elected Antonio Gramsci General Secretary of the PCI.
124 Journal of Contemporary History


From August 1924 to November 1926 Antonio Gramsci was the leader
of Italian communism. The major success of his leadership was to
eliminate from the party practically all opposition to the discipline and
policies of the Comintern. During the same period Benito Mussolini
eliminated practically all opposition to the discipline and policies of
the Fascist State, including that of the pure but impotent communists.
It was also in this period that Joseph Stalin triumphed over the
Trotskyist opposition in Russia.
Trotskyist and 'new left' critics of party historiography in Italy
have argued with conviction that Gramsci's political role was
objectively no different from that of Albert Treint, who, as General
Secretary of the French communist party in 1924-25, represented the
Zinoviev-Stalin version of international communism.28 'Objectively',
this claim is indisputable, but the subjective reality is more complex.
As long as Gramsci could believe that the goals of world revolution
were best served by Comintern discipline, he would bend over back-
wards to accommodate the will of the Russian 'majority'. An
unfortunate result of his good faith was that he spent an inordinate
amount of energy defending the actions of the Bolsheviks, often at the
expense of his own credibility. He defended the overthrow of the
Georgian and Armenian Republics, the suppression of civil liberty and
the terrorism of the Cheka on the grounds that the prisons, police,
courts and diplomacy were securely in the hands of the proletariat.
Between January 1921 and November 1926, the only time he publicly
objected to Soviet behavior was when the Soviet ambassador to Italy
formally invited Benito Mussolini to supper.29
A more significant aspect of Gramsci's new role was his effort
to reorganize the party along Bolshevik lines. Even after his election
as General Secretary, his control of the party was far from secure,
and would remain so until the party's Third Congress at Lyons in
January 1926. In the meantime he faced the stolid resistance of
Amadeo Bordiga, who still held sway over the rank and file and
controlled most of the federal secretaries. Bordiga represented the
major obstacle to Bolshevization in Italy. Having been forced into the
role of opposition by bureaucratic manoeuvers, he was bound to defend,
like Trotsky in Russia, the passe principle of party democracy. It was
through Bolshevization - the elimination of party democracy - that
Gramsci achieved his final triumph over Bordiga.
This intention was announced by one of his first moves as General
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 125

Secretary, which was to gag the mouthpieces of dissent. Bordiga's

journal Prometeo and the Pagine Rosse of Serrati's newly-recruited
terzini were efficiently silenced, presumably by withholding Comintern
subsidies.30 Gramasci did, however, permit the opposition to express
their views in l'Unitd, whch enabled something like a dialogue to
continue within the party.
This privilege was compromised, however, when Gramsci adopted
another Bolshevik expedient, appointment from above, to eliminate
the more intractable of Bordiga's followers from key provincial posts.
The occasion for this hatchet work was provided by the formation
in June 1925 of a Comitato d'intesa ('entente') to represent Bordiga's
position in the debates for the forthcoming Congress of Lyons.
Gramsci immediately denounced the entente as 'factionalist' and
demanded 'full and complete submission to the discipline of the
International'.31 The few who refused to submit were relieved of their
Gramsci never did anything without theoretical justification, and he
found the justification for these actions in the theory of 'Bolshevik
monolithism'. Speaking to the central committee in 1925, he defined
Trotsky's position in Russia as 'factionalist', adding that this was
especially dangerous in Russia, because to divide the party in a party-
state meant also to divide the state. And that would give rise to a
counter-revolutionary movement.32
Other evidence suggests that there was considerable tension in
Gramsci's effort to adapt to this new mode of reasoning. He
condemned Bordiga's former leadership for its 'over-centralization',
but when it came to suggesting an alternative, he was obliged to
recognise that 'Our party is not a democratic party. .... It is a party
centralized nationally and internationally'.33 He accused Bordiga of
having discouraged discussion within the party, which had led to
'intellectual stagnation'.34 But this scruple was bound to suffer when
the discussions were turned against himself. The central committee
could not renounce 'full control' over discussions, he said, because
discussions were also 'campaigns'.35 He frankly admitted that the
Communist Party did not proceed by democratic rules which would
permit minority groups to struggle to become the majority.36
The anti-democratic trend in Italian communism was determined
not only by order from abroad, but also by repression at home. Many
Bolshevik expedients were justified in Gramsci's mind by the counter-
revolutionary crisis in Italy. This was true, for instance, of his
reorganization of the party cells, in conformity with the commands
126 Journal of Contemporary History

of the Fifth World Congress. Bordiga charged that the cells would
encourage a 'corporate mentality' and 'lend themselves to the
convenient dictatorship of a bureaucratic functionary'.37 He then
launched the heretical charge that Leninist organizational criteria were
appropriate only to Russia. Gramsci replied that the Fascist repression
launched in January 1925 had placed the PCI in a position similar to
that of the Bolsheviks before the war, when Czarist persecution
threatened their very existence.38
Fascist repression also frustrated any hopes Gramsci may have
entertained to integrate the lessons of Bolshevism with the democratic
tradition of Ordine Nuovo. He tried, for instance, to impose a 'soviet'
interpretation on the Comintern design for 'workers' and peasants'
Committees'. Speaking to the central committee in 1925, he explicitly
equated the new program with the factory councils of 1920.39 But
neither in Russia nor in Italy did words like 'soviet' and 'factory
council' still imply a democratic movement from below, generating
the political form of a new state based on the universal suffrage of
the producing classes. 'Soviet' now implied an instrument of party
dictatorship, and 'councils' were but instruments for extending party
influence. If, in 1920, the party had been conceived as the servant of
the soviet, by 1926 the soviet was conceived as the servant of the party.
That this was true even of Gramsci is revealed in the 'Lyons Theses'
of January 1926, which must be considered a definitive statement of
his views at that time. Significantly, his historical sketch of the labor
movement it Italy made no mention of Ordine Nuovo. Equally
significant is the fact that he began the history of the PCI abruptly at
the Congress of Livorno and viewed its entire development as a struggle
for Bolshevization. The major lesson he drew from the experience of
the biennio rosso was that the struggle against capitalism could not
succeed without the leadership of the communist party. The only
lesson he drew from the factory council episode was that party
organization must be based on the places of production. In other words,
any new 'councils' or 'workers' committees' would serve merely as
party recruiting centers.40
This new meaning, though it directly expressed changes in the
Russian regime, also harmonized with the new reality of Fascist Italy.
It would have been ridiculous to suppose in 1926 that Mussolini would
permit a soviet anti-state to spawn 'organically', like weeds in his
garden. In fact, the commissioni interni, or grievance committees,
which had formerly provided the basis for factory councils, had been
suppressed for several years. Nor did the situation in the labor unions
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 127

favor their revival. Given the unlikely prospects for a radicalization of

the workers and peasants under the auspices of labor and socialist
leaders, it was logical for Gramsci to view every 'class' organization
as a tool for breaking their hold on the masses and for extending the
influence of the PCI. In any case, the workers' and peasants'
committees did not get off the ground before the Vidoni Pact of
October 1925 destroyed the last hope for an independent labor move-
ment and the Rocco Law of April 1926 codified the emerging
Corporative State.
The triumph of Fascism in Italy coincided with the triumph of
Stalin in Russia. It was a time of ruthlessness, and there was little room
for political manoeuver or 'tacking'. Gramsci's desperate position in
Rome, where he was constantly shadowed by police spies, made him
short-tempered with complaints about Stalin's methods. It was war,
and in war nobody should be surprised when both sides used bullets.
Even the sudden fall of Zinoviev from the Politbureau in July 1926
gave Gramsci no pause, except to say that all opposition within the
party was 'objectively' counter-revolutionary, and that 'past services
don't matter'.41
In October 1926 the conflict between Trotsky, now allied with
Zinoviev and Kamenev, and Stalin, now allied with Bukharin, raised
the spectre of a major schism in the Russian Party. This at least was too
much for Gramsci. In an extraordinary letter to the central committee
of the CPSU, he warned of the repercussions the conflict might have on
the international movement:

. . . today you are destroyingyour work. You degradeand risk annullingthe

leadershipfunction which the CommunistParty of the U.S.S.R. had won
through the impetus of Lenin. It seems to us that the violent passionof the
RussianQuestion causesyou to lose sight of the internationalaspectsof the
Russianquestionsthemselves,causesyou to forgetthat your dutiesasRussian
militantscan and must be fulfilled only within the context of the interestsof
the internationalproletariat.42

This was a serious warning, though Gramsci padded it withall the

correct denunciations of the opposition, and affirmed his allegiance
to the political line of the 'majority'.43
Despite this show of loyalty, Gramsci's concluding advice to 'avoid
excessive measures' was sufficient cause for alarm in the paranoid
atmosphere of the Comintern. Palmiro Togliatti, then representing the
PCI in Moscow, recognized as much in his refusal to forward the letter
to the central committee of the Russian Party. He argued that the
128 Journal of Contemporary History

opposition had already submitted to discipline, and that the letter

would only encourage them to renew hostilities.44 It was true that the
opposition had, on 4 October, signed a statement of submission. But
they politely maintained their criticism of Stalin's politics, just as
Stalin preserved his intention of giving them the axe. Towards the end
of the month he forced Trotsky out of the Politbureau and removed
Zinoviev from the top post in the Comintern. Thus, Gramsci was
intuitively correct in his reply to Togliatti, ordering him to forward the
letter regardless of the momentary truce. He did, however, give
Togliatti permission to alter the letter, placing his assertion of the
opposition's 'responsibility' for the crisis at the beginning.45 In
response to this unwavering criticism, the Russians sent Jules Humbert-
Droz to Italy with the ill-disguised threat that 'The executive
committee of the International fears that the executive committee of
the PCI aligns itself with the Trotskyist opposition'.46 This threat
obliged the PCI to officially withdraw Gramsci's letter.
Recently, Massimo Salvadori has argued that this episode is proof
of Gramsci's dissociation from Stalin and from Stalinism in general.47
This is a comforting conclusion, but the evidence does not support it.
The facts of the case are, in brief: 1. that Gramsci opposed the
Trotskyists on both organizational and tactical issues; 2. that he
supported Stalin on these issues; 3. that he opposed the use of
'excessive measures'; 4. that the only way he proposed to avoid such
measures was for the Trotskyists to submit to the Stalinists; and 5. that
the 'unity' he so urgently demanded meant unity on Stalin's terms.
On the other hand, Gramsci's intervention in the dispute was novel
in one very important respect. Up to that moment he had considered
the elementary fact of the Bolshevik victory of 1917 sufficient
justification for their leadership of the world party. But after nine years
this was no longer enough. To retain its leadership, the Russian Party
would now have to provide proof of progress towards socialism.48 Now
this was a clever manoeuver on Gramsci's part, for it endorsed Stalin's
proposal to build 'socialism in one country', but made his fealty
contingent on Stalin's fealty to that goal.
Once love is made conditional, it is more easily betrayed. Within
two years, Gramsci would break with the discipline of the
International.49 But it would prove less easy for him to break with the
habits of thought which those rules had bred into him. His
commitment to the logic of Bolshevik monolithism was not contingent
upon the behavior of the Bolshevik regime, but was by 1926 conceived
as an historically-necessary response to the crisis of Italian communism.
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 129

The principle of monolithism, as it came to be practised under Stalin,

represented a metamorphosis of Lenin's hallowed doctrine of
partiinost, or 'party-mindedness'. This metamorphosis orginated in the
tragic conditions of war-torn Russia, in the rise of the party-state and
in the rise of Joseph Stalin, but it found fertile soil in the defeated and
isolated parties of Europe, and in the weary hearts of their leaders.
Antonio Gramsci, though he was an exceptional man, was no exception
to this history.


1. This is the historiographical line of the PCI. It has also been argued in the
United States by John M. Cammett in his Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of
Italian Communism (Palo Alto 1967), 155-85.
2. Paolo Spriano, Storia del Partito comunista italiano, 2 vols. (Turin,
1967-69), I: Da Bordiga a Gramsci.
3. Elsa Fubini is in charge of editing Gramsci's writings and speeches from
the period 1923-26. Her work will complete the series of Gramsci's published
4. Communist historians, while arguing that Gramsci maintained the soviet
ideal, have reinterpreted that ideal in terms of the significance it subsequently
acquired, when the soviets were reduced to instruments of party dictatorship in
Russia. There was always, of course, considerable tension in Gramsci's concept of
the relationship between soviet and party. Communist historians, by conveniently
resolving that tension in favor of the party, have managed to obscure the real
transition which occurred in Russian politics and in Gramsci's political thought
in the 1920s. A good example of this is Franco Ferri's 'Consigli di fabbrica
e partito nel pensiero di Antonio Gramsci', Rinascita, (September 1957), XIV, No.
9, 465. In the fall of 1969 a group of young communists led by Rossana Rossanda
took note of this change and attempted to revitalize the orginal program of
Ordine Nuovo. They were excluded from the Party in the spring of 1970.
5. 'Russia e l'Internazionale', (9 January 1921), in Socialismo e fascismo,
1921-1922 (Turin 1967), 33.
6. Spriano, op. cit., note 2, I, 118. The 'interventionist' charge stemmed
from Gramsci's momentary and ill-advised support for Mussolini when the latter
called for an 'active and operational neutrality' in October 1914. The 'idealist'
label stemmed from Gramsci's long-standing admiration for Benedetto Croce and
130 Journal of Contemporary History

his staunch opposition to all positivistic or deterministic interpretations of

7. Angelo Tasca, 'I primi dieci anni del P.C.I.: Ordinovisti e Bordighisti',
IlMondo (8 Septemebr 1953).
8. Spriano, op. cit., I, 160.
9. Ibid., 249.
10. Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and others, (9 February 1924), in Giansiro
Ferrati and Niccolo Gallo (eds.), 2000 pagine di Gramsci, 2 vols. (Milan 1964),I,
11. Letter to Palmiro Togliatti (27 January 19124), op. cit., I, 663.
12. Amadeo Bordiga, 'Manifesto', in Helmut Gruber (ed.), International
Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History (New York 1967),
13. 'Impostazione del rapporto tra il P.C.d'I. e il Comintern' (June 1923),
Archivio del P.C.I., 188/14. Photostatic copy available at Istituto Gramsci in
14. Ibid.
15. Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and others, op. cit. note 10, I, 671.
16. Bordiga, op. cit., 379.
17. Letters to Scoccimarro and Terracini, op. cit. Note 10, I, 655, 659.
18. Letter to Togliatti, Terracini and others, op. cit. note 10, I, 666-68.
19. Letter to Terracini, cited by Spriano, op. cit. note 2, I, 354.
20. I'Ordine nuovo (1 March 19124), Feltrinelli Reprint (Milan 1966).
21. Letter to Togliatti (27 March 1924), op. cit. note 10, I, 680-81.
22. 'Le elezioni', l'Ordine nuovo (1 March 1924).
23. Spriano, op. cit. note 2, I, 349.
24. Antonio Gramsci, article in Lo Stato operaio, (15 May 1924), cited by
Spriano, op. cit., I, 361.
25. Spriano, op. cit., I, 359.
26. Ibid., 340.
27. Ibid., 371.
28. Robert Paris 'Il Gramsci di tutti', Giovane Critica (Fall 1969), 49;
Stefano Merli, 'I nostri conti con la teoria di "rivoluzione senza rivoluzione" di
Gramsci', Giovane Critica (Fall 1967), 63-64.
29. 'Franche parole al compagno Jurenef', I'Unita, (13 July 1924). For
Gramsci's defense of Soviet foreign policy against the barbs of the socialist
press, see 'Gli amici di Treves', 'I1 fronte antisoviettista dell'on. Treves', and
'L'on. Treves il furbissimo', I'Unitd (20 October, 18 August and 29 July 1925).
For his defense of soviet domestic policy see the following articles in l'Unitd:
'La ce-ka' (7 December 1924); 'Menscivismo e liberta' (31 July 1925); 'La coda
di paglia dell'on. Treves' (2 August 1925); and 'I contradini e la dittatura del
proletariato' (17 September 1926).
30. Spriano, op. cit. note 2, I, 401.
31. 'La lotta contro la frazione', I'Unita (10 June 1925).
32. 'Relazione al C.C.' (15 February 1925). Archivio del P.C.I., 1925 296/5.
Photostatic copy available at Istituto Gramsci in Rome.
33. 'Necessita di una preparazione ideologica di massa' (May 1925), op. cit.
note 10, I, 747.
34. Ibid.
35. 'Puntini sugli i', l'Unita (22 July 1925). For Bordiga's point of view, see
Bates: Antonio Gramsci and the PCI 131

Bordiga, 'Sull'iniziativa del Comitato d'intesa', l'Unita (25 July 1925).

36. 'Democrazia interna e liberta di discussione', l'Unita (12 June 1925).
37. Cited in Spriano, op. cit. note 2, I, 480.
38. 'La situazione interna del nostro partito e i compiti del prossimo
Congresso', Critica Marxista (September-December 1963), I, No. 5-6 291-92. This
was a speech to the central committee in May 1925, opening the preparatory
debates for the Lyons Congress.
39. Op. cit. note 32. See also 'Ne fascismo ne liberalismo: Soviettismo'
l'Unita (7 October 1924).
40. 'Tesi sulla situazione italiana e sui compiti del P.C.I.' (January 1926), in
Palmiro Toliatti (ed.), Trenta anni di vita e lotte del P.C.I. (Rom 1951), 93-99.
41. 'Prowedimenti del C.C. del P.C. dell'U.R.S.S.', l'Unita (27 July 1926).
42. 'La lettera di Gramsci al P.C.U.S. nel 1926', op. cit. note 10, I, 823.
43. Ibid., 824-25.
44. Togliatti's letter of reply has been edited by Franco Ferri in 'Gramsci e
Togliatti', Rinascita-Il Contemporaneo (24 April 1970). This article includes all
correspondence related to the issue.
45. Gramsci's letter of reply, op. cit., 18-19.
46. Cited in Massimo Salvadori, Gramsci e il problema della democrazia
(Turin 1970), 34.
47. Ibid., 30-43.
48. In 'Gramsci e Togliatti', op cit., 19.
49. Gramsci's disagreement with the tactical line of the Sixth World Congress
(which called for a new war on social-democracy) would probably have resulted
in his exclusion from the party, had he not been confined in prison.